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Mitch Benn on how to be anti-semitic without really trying

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

So Jeremy Corbyn was, entirely un-unexpectedly, re-elected leader of the Labour Party and was feted (and immortalised in verse) by an adoring membership in my old hometown of Liverpool.

Like most politically unaffiliated liberal intellectual smart-arses, I am unsure how I feel about this. The major objection one encounters to The Corbyn Project is his ‘unelectability’; that his old-school, lefty routine, while enrapturing the long-neglected Actual Socialist element of British society, is scaring the pants off everyone else, thus dooming the nation to at least another decade of untempered Toryism.

While this is probably true, it suggests that the Labour Party’s real problem is a marketing one; if only Corbyn could SELL his trad socialism more effectively to a sceptical public, all would be well. It’s not his beliefs, just the presentation.

Yeah. Not sure about that.

At the exact moment that I write this, Momentum, the Faith Militant to Corbyn’s High Sparrow, are holding their ambiguously named ‘anti-semitism meeting’. At this meeting, leaflets are being handed out calling for the expulsion from the Labour Party of the Jewish Labour Movement as, and I quote verbatim here: ‘The JLM and other Zionist forces are determined to stem the tide in this country… the JLM acts as a representative of a foreign power, Israel.’

One of the most depressing spectacles of the last few months has been that of people with impeccable progressive credentials, who would pounce upon any instance of ‘mansplaining’ at feminists or ‘whitesplaining’ racism to persons of colour, loftily informing progressive British Jews that they are totally imagining anti-semitism in the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn.

And all too often, the reason given for this dismissal is that this Labour Party couldn’t possibly be racist in any way precisely because it’s been restored to proper socialism! Corbyn and his pals can’t be anti-semitic; they’ve been Real Labour men all their lives…

I’m going to say something now, which, apparently, is going to come as news to some people. Ready?


Bigotry and racism aren’t political positions. They’re delusions, hang-ups, obsessions, manias, if you will. There’s nothing inherently left OR right wing about them.

One does encounter more obvious racism on the political right, because God n’ Country Conservatism attracts racists, intentionally or otherwise. But that’s people choosing to be right wing because they’re racist, not the other way round.

Conservatism doesn’t cause or even require racism, even if it is often happy to turn a blind eye to it when there’s an electoral advantage to be had (or indeed to hold an unnecessary referendum in order to placate it, but that’s a rant for another time).

But there’s nothing about being left-wing that precludes being racist, or vice-versa. And the left can be all too comfortable with bigotry, as long as it’s the ‘punching up’ kind of bigotry…

For at least the last 50 years, the Big Bad of the left has been the American military/industrial complex and the reckless warmongering that sustains it. And you’ve gotta say, the left have a point here; we’re going to be cleaning up Dick Cheney’s mess for decades.

The trouble comes when people abandon nuance and start White Hat/Black Hat-ing the situation: once you’ve identified the Bad Guy, anything opposing the Bad Guy is, by definition, the Good Guy.

And if US imperialism is the Bad Guy, then Israel, being as it is (perceived to be) a protectorate of US imperialism, is also the Bad Guy. And anything opposing it is therefore the Good Guy, even if it’s a bunch of genocidal zealots like Hamas.

Hang on, surely I’m not playing the Criticism Of Israel = anti-semitism card? Of course not, but it’s surprisingly easy to slide from one to the other if you’re not very careful.

A few months ago, David Baddiel took to Twitter to express his sorrow and anger at the plight of Syrian refugees. This provoked the immediate response from some random Twitterer of ‘What about the Palestinians, Dave?’.

I remember reading this and thinking, I bet that guy doesn’t regard himself as antisemitic, and would probably respond with genuine outrage if I called him anti-semitic. But hell YES he was being anti-semitic at that moment.

The only two things everybody knows about David are that he used to share a flat with Frank Skinner and that he’s Jewish. It would never have occurred to said Twitterer to confront me with the plight of the Palestinians, or Jeremy Hardy, or Mark Steel, since we’re not (as far as he knows) Jews.

I’ve no doubt he thought he was making a legitimate point about the antics of the Israeli government. But by holding 
David accountable for these antics just because he’s Jewish he was ascribing negative traits to someone based purely on his ethnicity, which is the very definition of racism, and there’s a word for racism against Jews…

And anti-semitism can sneak into the thought processes of otherwise non-racist – indeed actively ANTI-racist – people, because it kind of doesn’t feel like racism…

For a start, Jews are white people and are perceived as having successfully entered the professional class and become ‘respectable’ in a way more obviously foreign-looking minorities thus far haven’t. They’re an ethnic minority, but (regarded as) a suburban white bourgeois ethnic minority. They’re at least the social ‘equal’ of most politically active people in this country and, as such, having a go at them can be justified as ‘punching up’, or at the very least, punching sideways.

In other words, you don’t have to buy into Zionist conspiracy theories (although as that Momentum leaflet shows, Zionist conspiracy theories are making a BIG comeback this season) for hatin’ on Jews to feel a BIT like Sticking It To The Man, in a way that bashing black and/or Asian people really wouldn’t.

I think the Labour leadership seems too comfortable with anti-semitism in others if it thinks they make up for it in other ways. I know anti-semitism has become more open and unembarrassed in Labour circles on Corbyn’s ‘watch’. And yes, they had that enquiry and decided that they don’t have a problem with it after all, but Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, commissioned his own enquiry into the Bridgegate scandal and guess what? Turned out he knew nothing about it and it wasn’t a big deal anyway! It’s extraordinary how often people who investigate themselves turn out to have behaved impeccably.

And yes, Jeremy Corbyn has (lately) condemned anti-semitism – in the abstract – in no uncertain terms, most recently in his conference speech. But condemning a thing in the abstract doesn’t imply actually doing anything about that thing; it doesn’t even preclude still doing that thing.

What I do know is this: people who perceive the world in simple ways present it in simple terms. Corbyn’s apparent failure to sufficiently tackle anti-semitism as long as it’s deployed in the service of opposing Israel (and by extension, Western Imperialism) speaks of just such a binary, good guys n’ bad guys approach to global politics.

Retreating into simplistic certainties rather than confronting reality in all its complexity is a disturbing trait in a political leader, and still would be, whether or not he had a problem with Jews, and even if he were ‘electable’.

Mitch Benn is a comedian, musician and author

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